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Interview with Alma Cuervo
Road Show

By Beth Herstein


Alma Cuervo (front) and Michael Cerveris (rear, in spotlight) and Company in Road Show
The premiere of Road Show at New York Public Theater is the culmination of a longtime dream of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. As many theater fans know, it's taken the show 10 years to make it to New York City, with changes of directors, casts, song lists and titles along the way. Road Show is based on the real life adventures of brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner, played by Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris, respectively. The brothers, born in California to prosperous parents in the 1870s, left their respectable family early on and flourished as con artists in Alaska until they were run out of the state. They went on to enjoy spectacular successes and suffer great failures. Addison, a talented draftsman, designed luxurious estates for members of the Florida elite and eventually, with Wilson, helped develop the fledgling city of Boca Raton. After the Florida land boom collapsed, this venture also failed, and Addison went bankrupt and died in poverty. The charismatic Wilson—who'd already been a playwright, a boxing manager and a noted wit at the Algonquin Round Table—abandoned his brother and landed on his feet, co-owning and managing California's famed Brown Derby. However, his flamboyant lifestyle caught up with him, and he died not long after Addison. The story of these talented schemers is a quintessential American story particularly suited to treatment by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, with their penchant for exploring American identity and the American Dream.

For Alma Cuervo, who plays Mama, to perform in the New York premiere of a Sondheim show is one of her lifelong dreams. She hasn't waited idly for the opportunity. Over the course of her career, she has amassed a long string of good reviews and estimable credits. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Cuervo acted in many productions there, including the premiere of Sondheim's The Frogs in 1974. She moved to New York a year after graduation, and soon debuted there in her friend Wendy Wasserstein's breakthrough play, Uncommon Women and Others, at Marymount Manhattan College in 1977. The New York Times review of that show praised the "splendid" cast, which also included Swoosie Kurtz and Jill Eikenberry, and credits Cuervo with the show's "most luminous and heartbreaking scene." After that performance, Cuervo appeared in an impressive 13 Broadway productions. She has also performed in several national tours, most notably two stints as Madame Morrible in the national touring company of Wicked.

On November 11, Cuervo was especially thrilled by that day's rehearsal of Road Show, because of the introduction of a new song, "Brotherly Love," into the show. Despite her hectic rehearsing and performing schedule that day, she sat down with me to discuss some highlights in her career and her current work in Road Show.

Beth Herstein:  You're from Florida. What was it like growing up there?

AC:  Yes, I'm from Tampa. My family is Spanish and we've been there a long time. It was very different because I grew up in the 1960s and '70s and there was much less going on there back then. It's very much more built up now. The entertainment was to go to the beach or to the movies. Then I went to college in New Orleans at Tulane, and to Yale for my MFA.

BH:  You were part of an extraordinarily talented class at Yale. Can you talk about what the experience was like?

AC:  It was when Robert Brustein was still the head of the program. Each class had about three to four women and ten men, so you kind of knew everyone. Meryl Streep was there, Christine Estabrook, Sigourney Weaver. In the playwriting program my good friend Wendy Wasserstein and Chris Durang, Ted Tally. William Ivey Long, the designer, was there. It was just a really amazing time.

At the end of my first year there, Sondheim did The Frogs at the Yale Swimming Pool. There were singing frogs, dancing frogs, and the swimming frogs who were the Yale Swim Team. It was just a nutty thing to do; there was such an echo in the pool that Sondheim even wrote it into the lyrics. We had no idea when they brought people in what they could hear. It turned out to be alright, but we didn't know. Burt Shevelove [who adapted the book from Aristophanes' play and directed the Yale production] some days would direct from a dinghy.

BH:  Can you talk a little about your friendship and your work with Wendy Wasserstein?

AC:  It's hard to put it into words. It's funny, because when she died, so many people said, "She was my best friend." There were hundreds of people who said that. She was a very dear friend. She was wonderfully warm, gracious—and so intelligent. And funny, a funny woman. And she was daring, she had a child when she was almost 50. She always was incredibly generous with her time, helping young writers who were coming up.

Especially in the early plays, I often played the character that was sort of her alter ego.

BH:  It seems that was the role you played in Uncommon Women and Others.

AC:  Yes. We had done an earlier one act version of it, and she also had done a fuller version of it at Yale. In the one act, I played Rita, the part that Swoosie Kurtz eventually did. But when we came here, it was cast the other way, with me playing Holly. And it felt right. We did two versions of the second play in which I played her alter ego, Isn't It Romantic. Very different and they both worked in very different ways. Later, I was in The Heidi Chronicles.

My heart is so full about her that it's hard to put it into just a few words. I remember having to speak at a benefit after she died. I was doing Wicked at the time, and all I wound up doing was reading the lyrics of the final song ["For Good"], which is essentially about friendship. Because that could have been written for her.

BH:  I was thinking about your work with Wendy Wasserstein in connection with your work in this show. Like Sondheim and Weidman, she looked at the American Dream, although from a different angle.

AC:  Yes. Years ago, when they first did Assassins, I was in the very first reading, at Playwrights Horizons. The sensibility is similar because it's the same book writer. But I hadn't thought of the three plays together until John Doyle said that he regards their three collaborations—Pacific Overtures, Assassins, and Road Show—to be a trilogy about America, showing different views of America from really outside.


Michael Cerveris, Alma Cuervo, and Alexander Gemignani in Road Show
BH:  Earlier you were talking about the song that was added to the show today. Can you elaborate?

AC:  Stephen Sondheim often adds a song late in the conception of the play that pulls everything together. There was a song not written until Assassins was playing in London [in 1992], called "Something Just Broke," about when Kennedy was assassinated, and how something just broke in the consciousness of the world, and in our sense of innocence and who we were. That song helped pull the production together. Even when we did The Frogs, there was a song called "Parabasis: It's Only a Play," which was sort of the point of the whole thing, and we got it the night before we opened. Now for Road Show we have this one, "Brotherly Love," which is so pulling together. It doesn't add humanity to the show, because that's already there, but it enriches the relationship between the brothers and warms the show.

BH:  How did you come to be involved in this production?

AC:  I had auditioned for John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, and it was a lovely sequence of auditions. I didn't get it, but that was fine. I had such a lovely time auditioning, and then I went to see it and loved it. When he directed A Catered Affair, I was on the road and came in and auditioned. Once again, it was a lovely experience, but I didn't get the part. Then, I was on the road with Wicked and I got a call asking, "Would you want to do the Sondheim musical that they're going to do at the Public? We can send you the script." I said, "You can send me a script, but just tell them 'Yes.'" Originally, I auditioned to be in the ensemble, but several weeks later I was offered the part of Mama.

It has actually been my dream my whole life, to do a Sondheim show in New York. So, this was an absolute blessing out of the blue. I can't begin to tell you how utterly flabbergasted and thankful I've been from the moment that call came in. I had heard Bounce once or twice, but I didn't want to know too much more because I knew they were going to reconceive it and I didn't want to have any baggage.

BH:  They've changed the show pretty dramatically over the past 10 years.

AC:  Hal Prince [who directed the show, wanted] a love interest for Wilson, which was a huge part as the female lead, played by Michele Pawk. That character is totally gone. Jane Powell had played the character I played. She sang a lot more, and her character was a lot funnier. The show was two acts, and she died at the end of the first act, and then died period. In this one the character stays on the stage afterward. We think of it as a cross between Wings of Desire and Topper. [laughter] William Parry and I, the two parents, linger after we die and watch our sons.

BH:  I wondered about the challenge of doing that. You have to react to what is going on the whole time.

AC:  To me, it's one of the most fun parts of the night. Granted, I get to do some stuff before that happens. The rest of the company has to do a lot more listening, and they sing a lot more. I used to sing more ensemble stuff, but I don't do that anymore. It's a different approach to the play, the way the ensemble is interested in it. It's like being on a Chekhov play, where there are nine people on the stage and you're not the one it's about. You get to know about what fills in the cracks. There's so much I learn after my character dies about what happened, and even about what they were doing when I wasn't there. I find it fascinating. The play is lighted in a very constructive and careful way, and beautifully designed, but occasionally I also help throw the focus to where it needs to go next. We all can, by what we look at.

BH:  Do you do that instinctively, or were you all directed that way?

AC:  We haven't been directed to. We just do because we were in the room all the time. This director doesn't call people and tell them that if they're not in the scene they don't have to come to that part of the rehearsals. We were there all the time, for everything. We learned all the music. So now, if you have to sing something else you know it already. It was glorious. It was a lot of extra sitting on seats for people who didn't have a lot to do, but this is an amazing company. Also, everybody in the cast usually plays principal roles. So to be functioning as an ensemble like this is very generous and almost unheard of.

BH:  I interviewed a few actors from the recent production of Company, which John Doyle directed. They also commented that everyone in the cast was really supportive and they said how unique that was. Do you attribute some of that to John Doyle?

AC:  Absolutely. And to this notion of us all being in there and all being responsible. We all are aware that if any one of us suddenly starts tapping our foot, the whole thing falls apart. As unimportant as it seems to be focused, if you don't do it, you're destroying the play. We all like each other too, and there's a great feeling in the room. Everyone was asked, "Do you want to do the show, the third one by Weidman and Sondheim?" The two of them are so amazing. John Weidman is such a terrific writer. John also has this wonderfully supportive way about him. He's there a lot, he comes to see the show a lot and he hangs out. He's a sweet man, and smart as a whip. He's a lawyer, trained as a lawyer at Yale. And he has written for "Sesame Street." And he's wanted to get this thing done for a long time. They both have.

BH:  What do you think caused it to take so long to develop?

AC:  It was a question of defining what the story is, I think. I understand that when Sondheim started to write it, he viewed it as Wilson's story—the more charismatic brother, the Michael Cerveris part. Apparently he originally became interested in the story years ago, but then he found out that Irving Berlin had already started to write a musical about it [with S.N. Behrman]. He let the project go but kept working on it. When he connected with John Weidman, they decided to make it about the relationship between the two brothers. They realized that there was a lot to tell about both of them. And, this is how I understand what happened next. Sam Mendes had a particular vision of the play, and that was the first workshop [called Wise Guys in 1999 at New York Theatre Workshop, starring Victor Garber and Nathan Lane] ... There were some problems, as I understand it, and they went to Hal Prince to direct [in 2003]. And there were also some rights issues. Hal Prince wanted to put in more comedy and add a love story. So, the story got bigger and broader and very show-biz-y. They performed at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and at the Kennedy Center [both in 2003, with Richard Kind and Howard McGillin and called Bounce]. Some people loved it but it didn't inspire a move [to New York]. I think that Oskar Eustis had something to do with getting the ball rolling again.

BH:  He has a real vision for the Public, especially this season, centering it around America's sense of identity and its history. Road Show fits in perfectly with that.

AC:  There's another huge presence. Huge mind, huge gifts. Getting this team together and letting them do what they want to do. This production is dark, even with the song going in today. But, it's still more theater than musical comedy. It's musical theater. And there's a lot of stuff that John Doyle doesn't let us complete. It's like when you see Sunday in the Park with George. The idea of drawing dots and the person who looks at it puts it together and makes the picture happen. There is a lot of that going on where he doesn't let us finish the work. We present something and then leave it. The scenes don't build on one another in a naturalistic way. Some people think of it as Brechtian. You'll have the death of the father, and it's almost like a snap to the next scene. He doesn't want things to be easily explained, or that simple. When it is, you have to earn that simplicity. So there is a stylistic decision. Also, the decision to have everyone on the stage  ... brings an incredible energy into the room. It also makes the audience complicit, because they get eyeballed a lot.

It's also so strange, the older ones of us who are on the stage to think of it. There is so much that has happened in that theater, on that stage. From Chorus Line to Plenty. I keep thinking of the things that have happened on that stage.

BH:  So it feels like an appropriate place to have the show?

AC:  Yeah. Also it's a wonderful space in that you're straight on, the audience to the house. We're playing it at an angle, but there are no bad seats. If you were in the last row, you'd still get it. Also, we've worked on this set so much. They would just bring in different boxes every day. Placing them in different ways. So we've been crawling in those things for six weeks, actually. Once they got something that they liked a little better they would secure it a little better, and finally they set it the way it is.

BH:  You worked with Michael Cerveris before, in Titanic. Is this your first time working with Alexander Gemignani?

AC:  Michael and I hardly crossed paths in Titanic, it was such a big show. But, obviously we were in the same company. We both have dogs, too, so we both had our dogs at the theater. I have gotten to know him much better this time. At the end of Titanic, he had already left it to do Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We all went to see it. I already knew he was brilliant, I had seen him in Tommy. But, that's when I went, "Oh, my God. He can do anything." In this show, he blows me away. He's so inventive on the floor. He's smart, and he makes these smart choices when we're rehearsing. He doesn't do the same thing twice, either. I mean he can, but he's very inventive and yet very much in character. And he has that glorious voice.

Alex I hadn't worked with before. He looks so much like his dad [musical director Paul Gemignani], whom I've auditioned for so much. I'd seen Alex as the Beadle in Sweeney Todd, where he played the trumpet. I saw his cabaret show recently at the Laurie Beechman theater, where he just sings and is himself. It shows you how much he's really acting in this one. He and Michael have a trusting relationship with each other, and they're so musical too, so skilled. And, just lovely people. They have a shorthand, too, when they work on the show.

BH:  The two of them have worked together several times by now, on Stephen Sondheim shows. They've also worked with John Doyle before. How easy was it for the rest of the cast and crew to get in on their shorthand?

AC:  Very easy, because John Doyle does all these exercises. We would put on blindfolds and watercolor things on big pieces of brown paper while we listened to a section of music, then act all these things out. We had a lot of other exercises too. Also, for weeks we would try something in the show, and then he would ask around the room, "What did you think of that?" So everyone feels really vested in the show.

BH:  It also represents a huge investment by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman—and, as you said, it addresses themes they've also addressed in their prior collaborations.

AC:  It's funny because the other day I was looking through some old VHS tapes I have, and I found one I had taped when he was interviewed for "Inside the Actors Studio." There are a series of questions, Bernard Pivot's questions, like "What do you want God to say to you when you come to heaven?" and "What is your favorite cuss word?" When they asked Sondheim what his favorite word is, he said, "Pioneer." That word comes up so much in this show and now when I hear of it I think of it in a different way. He also said he wanted to come back as a standard poodle. [laughter.] I have a little one, so I get it.


Alma Cuervo is currently appearing in Road Show at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY. For ticket and schedule, visit publictheater.org.

Photos: Joan Marcus


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